i-can-management Weekly Update 1

A couple weeks ago I started writing a game and i-can-management is the directory I made for the project so that’ll be the codename for now. I’m going to write these updates to journal the process of making this game. As I’m going through this process alone, you’ll see all aspects of the game development process as I go through them. That means some weeks may be art heavy, while others game rules, or maybe engine refactoring. I also want to give a glance how I’m feeling about the project and rules I make for myself.

Speaking of rules, those are going to be a central theme on how I actually keep this project moving forward.

  • Optimize only when necessary. This seems obvious, but folks define necessary differently. 60 frames per second with 750×750 tiles on the screen is my current benchmark for whether I need to optimize. I’ll be adding numbers for load times and other aspects once they grow beyond a size that feels comfortable.
  • Abstractions are expensive, use them sparingly.This is something I learned from a Jonathan Blow talk I mention in my previous post. Abstractions can increase or remove flexibility. On one hand reusing components may allow more rapid iteration. On the other hand it may take considerable effort to make systems communicate that weren’t designed to pass messages.I’m making it clear in each effort whether I’m in exploration mode so I work mostly with just 1 function, or if I’m in architect mode where I’m trying to make the next feature a little easier to implement. This may mean 1000 line functions and lots of global like use for a while until I understand how the data will be used. Or it may mean abstracting a concept like the camera to a struct because the data is always used together.
  • Try the easier to implement answer before trying the better answer.I have two goals with this. First, it means I get to start trying stuff faster so I know if I want to pursue it or if I’m kinda off on the idea. Maybe this first implementation will show some other subsystem needs features first so I decide to delay the more correct answer. So in short quicker to test and expose unexpected requirements.The other goal is to explore building games in a more holistic way. Knowing a quick and dirty way to implement something may help when trying to get an idea thrown together really quick. Then knowing how to evolve that code into a better long term solution means next games or ideas that cross pollinate are faster to compose because the underlying concepts are better known.

The last couple weeks have been an exploration of OpenGL via glium the library I’m using to access OpenGL from Rust as well as abstract away the window creation. I’d only ever ran the example before this dive into building a game. From what I remember of doing this in C++ the abstraction it provides for the window creation and interaction, using the glutin library is pretty great. I was able to create a window of whatever size, hook up keyboard and mouse events, and render to the screen pretty fast after going through the tutorial in the glium book.

This brings me to one of the first frustrating points in this project. So many things are focused on 3d these days that finding resources for 2d rendering is harder. If you find them, they are for old versions of OpenGL or use libraries to handle much of the tile rendering. I was hoping to find an article like “I built a 2d tile engine that is pretty fast and these are the techniques I used!” but no such luck. OpenGL guides go immediately into 3d space after getting past basic polygons. But it just means I get to explore more which is probably a good thing.

I already had a deterministic map generator built to use as the source of the tiles on the screen. So, I copy and pasted some of the matrices from the glium book and then tweak the numbers I was using for my tiles until they show up on the screen and looked ok. From here I was pretty stoked. I mean if I have 25×40 tiles on the screen what more could someone ask for. I didn’t know how to make the triangle strips work well for the tiles to be drawn all at once, so I drew each tile to the screen separately, calculating everything on every frame.

I started to add numbers here and there to see how to adjust the camera in different directions. I didn’t understand the math I was working with yet so I was mostly treating it like a black box and I would add or multiply numbers and recompile to see if it did anything. I quickly realized I needed it to be more dynamic so I added detection for the mouse scrolling. Since I’m on my macbook most of the time I’m doing development I can scroll vertically as well as horizontally, making a natural panning feeling.

I noticed that my rendering had a few quirks, and I didn’t understand any of the math that was being used, so I went seeking more sources of information on how these transforms work. At first I was directed to the OpenGL transformations page which set me on the right path, including a primer on the linear algebra I needed. Unfortunately, it quickly turned toward 3d graphics and I didn’t quite understand how to apply it to my use case. In looking for more resources I found Solarium Programmers’ OpenGL 101 page which took some more time with orthographic projects, what I wanted for my 2d game.

Over a few sessions I rewrote all the math to use a coordinate system I understood. This was greatly satisfying, but if I hadn’t started with ignoring the math, I wouldn’t have had a testbed to see if I actually understood the math. A good lesson to remember, if you can ignore a detail for a bit and keep going, prioritize getting something working, then transforming it into something you understand more thoroughly.

I have more I learned in the last week, but this post is getting quite long. I hope to write a post this week about changing from drawing individual tiles to using a single triangle strip for the whole map.

In the coming week my goal is to have mouse clicks interacting with the map working. This involves figuring out what tile the mouse has clicked which I’ve learned isn’t trivial. In parallel I’ll be developing the first set of tiles using Pyxel Edit and hopefully integrating them into the game. Then my map will become richer than just some flat colored tiles.

Here is a screenshot of the game so far for posterity’s sake. It is showing 750×750 tiles with deterministic weighted distribution between grass, water, and dirt:Screen Shot 2016-09-18 at 8.38.15 PM.png:

Changing Optimization Targets

Alternate Title: How I changed my mental model to be a more effective game developer and human.

Back in February 2016, I started my journey as a professional game developer. I joined Sparkypants to work on the backend for Dropzone. This was about 7 months ago at time of writing. I didn’t enter the game development world in the standard ways. I wasn’t at one of the various schools with game dev programs, I didn’t intern at a studio, I haven’t spent much of my personal development time building my own indie games. I had on the other hand, spent years building backend services, writing dev tools, competing in AI competitions, and building a slew of half finished open source projects. In short, I was not a game developer when I started.

My stark contrast in background works to my advantage in many parts of my job. Most of our engineers haven’t worked on backend services and haven’t needed to scale that sort of infrastructure. My lead and friend Johannes has been instrumental in many of my successes so far in the company. He has background in backend development as well as game development and has often been a translator and guide to me as I learn what being a game developer means.

At first, I assumed my contrast would work itself out naturally and I’d just become a game developer by osmosis. If I am surrounded by folks doing this and I’m actively developing a game, I will become a game developer. But that presupposes success, which was only coming to me in limited amounts. The other conclusion would be leaving game development because I wasn’t compatible with it, something I’m unwilling to accept at this time.

I shared my concerns around not fitting the culture at Sparkypants with Johannes, as well as some productivity worries. I’ve learned over the years that if I’m feeling problems like this, my boss may be as well. Johannes with his typical wonderful encouraging personality reminded me that there are large aspects of my personality that fit in with the culture, just maybe my development style and conflict resolution needed work and recommended this talk by Jonathan Blow to show me the mental model that is closer to how many of the other developers operate, among some other advice.

That talk by Jonathan Blow spends a fair amount of its time on the topic of optimization. Whether it is using data oriented techniques to make data series processing faster or drawing in a specific way to make the graphics card use less memory or any number of topics, optimization comes up in nearly every game development talk or article at some point. His point though was that we often spend too much time optimizing the wrong things. If you’ve been in computer science for a bit you’ve inevitably heard at least a fragment of the following quote from Donald Knuth, if not you’re in for a treat, this is a good one:

Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered. We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil. Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%.

The bolded text is the part most folks quote, implying the rest. I had heard this, quoted it, and used it as justification for doing or not doing things many times in the past. But, I’d also forgotten it, I’d apply it when it was convenient for me, but not generally to my software development. Blow starts with the more traditional overthinking algorithms and code in general that most bring up when they speak on premature optimization. Then he followed on with the idea that selecting data structures is a form of optimization. That follow on was a segue to point out that any time you are thinking about a problem, you should keep in mind if it is the most important or urgent problems for you to think about.

The end of the day, your job as a game developer is not to optimize for speed or correctness, but to optimize for fun. This means trying a lot of ideas and throwing many of them out. If you spent a lot of time optimizing for a million users of a feature and only some folks in the company use it before you decide to remove it, you’ve wasted a lot of effort. Maybe not completely, since you’ve probably learned during the process, but that effort could have been put into other features or parts of the system that may actually need attention. This shift in thinking has me letting go of details in more cases, spend less time on projects and focusing on “functional” over “correct and scalable.”

The next day after watching that talk and discussing with Johannes, I attended RustConf and saw a series of amazing talks on Rust and programming in general. Of particular note for changing my mental model was Julia Evan’s closing keynote about learning systems programming with Rust. There were so many things that struck me during that talk, but I’ll just focus on the couple that were most relevant.

First and foremost was the humility in the talk. Julia’s self described experience level was “intermediate developer” while having about as many years of experience as I have and I considered myself a more “senior developer.” At many points over the last couple years I’ve wrestled with this, considering myself senior then seeing evidence that I’m not. As more confident person, it is an easy trap for me to fall into. I’m in my first year as a game developer, regardless of other experience I’m a junior game developer at best.

Starting to internalize this humility has resulted in fighting my coworkers less when they bring up topics that I think I have enough knowledge to weigh in on. The more experienced folks at work have decades of building games behind them. I’m not saying my input to these discussions is worthless, I still have a lot to contribute, but I’ve been able to check my ego at the door more easily and collaborate through topics instead of being contrary.

The humility in the talk makes another major concept from it, life long learning, take on a new light. I’ve always been striving for more knowledge in the computer science space, so life long learning isn’t new to me, but like the optimization discussion above there is more nuance to be discovered. Having humility when trying to learn makes the experience so much richer for all parties. Teachers being humble will not over explain a topic and recognize that their way is not the only way. Learners being humble will be more receptive to ideas that don’t fit their current mental model and seek more information about them.

This post has become quite long, so I’ll try to wrap things up and use further blog posts to explore these ideas with more concrete examples. Writing this has been a mechanism for me to understand some of this change in myself as well as help others who may end up in similar shoes.

If this blog post were a tweet, I think it’d be summarized into “Pay attention to the important things, check your ego at the door, and keep learning.” which I’m sure would get me some retweets and stars or hearts or whatever. And if someone else said it, I’d go “of course, yeah folks mess this up all the time!” But, there is so much more nuance in those ideas. I now realize I’m just a very junior game developer with some other sometimes relevant experience, I’ve so much to learn from my peers and am extremely excited to do so.

If you have additional resources that you’d think I or others who read this would find valuable, please comment below or send me at tweet.

Started Writing a Game

I started writing a game! Here’s the origin:

commit 54dbc81f294b612f7133c8a3a0b68d164fd0322c
Author: Wraithan (Chris McDonald) <xwraithanx@gmail.com>
Date: Mon Sep 5 17:11:14 2016

 initial commit

Ok, now that we’re past that, lets talk about how I got there. I’ve been a gamer all my life, a big portion of the reason I went into software development was to work on video games. I’ve started my own games a couple times around when I as 18. Then every couple years I dabble in rendering Final Fantasy Tactics style battle map.

I’ve also played in a bunch of AI competitions over the years. I love writing programs to play games. Also, I recently started working at Sparkypants, a game studio, on Dropzone a modern take on RTS. I develop a bunch of the supporting services in the game our matchmaking and such.

Another desire that has lead me here is the desire to complete something. I have many started projects but rarely get them to a release quality. I think it is time I make my own game, and the games I’ve enjoyed the most have been management and simulation games. I’ll be drawing from a lot of games in that genre. Prison Architect, Rimworld, FortressCraft Evolved, Factorio, and many more. I want to try implementing lots of the features as experiments to decide what I want to dig further into.

The game isn’t open source currently, maybe eventually. I’m building the game mostly from scratch using rust and the glium abstraction over OpenGl/glutin. I’m going to try to talk about portions of the development on my blog. This may be simple things like new stuff I learn about Rust. Celebrating achievements as I feel proud of myself. And whatever else comes up as I go. If you want to discuss stuff I prefer twitter over comments, but comments are there if you would rather.

So far I’ve built a very simple deterministic map generator. I had to make sure the map got it’s own seed so it could decide when to pull numbers out and ensure consistency. It currently requires the map to be generated in a single pass. I plan to change to more of a procedural generator so I can expand the map as needed during game play.

I started to build a way to visualize the map beyond an ascii representation. I knew I wanted to be on OpenGL so I support all the operating systems I work/play in. In Rust the best OpenGL abstraction I could find was glium which is pretty awesome. It includes glutin so I get window creation and interaction as part of it, without having to stitch it together myself.

This post is getting a bit long. I think I’ll wrap it up here. In the near future (maybe later tonight?) I’ll have another post with my thoughts on rendering tiles, coordinate systems, panning and zooming, etc. I’m just a beginner at all of this so I’m very open to ideas and criticisms, but please also be respectful.

Assigning Blocks in Rust

So, I’m hanging out after an amazing day at RustConf working on a side project. I’m trying to practice a more “just experiment” attitude while playing with some code. This means not breaking things out into functions or other abstractions unless I have to. One thing that made this uncomfortable was when I’d accidentally shadow a variable or have a hard time seeing logical chunks. Usually a chunk of the code could be distilled into a single return value so a function would make sense, but it also makes my code less flexible during this discovery phase.

While reading some code I noticed a language feature I’d never noticed before. I knew about using braces to create scopes. And from that, I’d occasionally declare a variable above a scope, then use the scope to assign to it while keeping the code to create the value separated. Other languages have this concept so I knew it from there. Here is an example:

fn main() {
    let a = 2;
    let val;
    {
        let a = 1;
        let b = 3;
        val = a + b;
    } // local a and local b are dropped here
    println!("a: {}, val: {}", val); // a: 2, val: 4
}

But this feature I noticed let me do something to declare my intent much more exactly:

fn main() {
    let a = 2;
    let val = {
        let a = 1;
        let b = 3;
        a + b
    } // local a and local b are dropped here
    println!("a: {}, val: {}", val); // a: 2, val: 4
}

A scope can have a return value, so you just make the last expression return by omitting the semicolon and you can assign it out. Now I have something that I didn’t have to think about the signature of but separates some logic and namespace out. Then later once I’m done with discovery and ready to abstract a little bit to make things like error handling, testing, or profiling easier I have blocks that may be combined with a couple related blocks into a function.

Owning Your Stack

A few months back I wrote about reinventing wheels. Going down that course has been interesting and I hope to continue reinventing parts of the personal cloud stack. Personal cloud meaning taking all of the services you have hosted elsewhere and pulling them in. This feeds into the IndieWeb movement as well.

A couple years ago, I deployed my first collocated server with my friends. I got a pretty monstrous setup compared to my needs, but I figured it’d pay for itself over time and it has. One side effect of having all this space was that I could let my friends also have slices of my server. It was nice sharing those extra resources. Unfortunately, by hosting my friend’s slices of my server, it meant doing anything to the root system or how the system was organized was a bit tedious or even off limits.

In owning my own services, I want to restructure my server. Also I want to have interesting routing between containers and keep all the containers down to the single process ideal. In order to move to this world I’ve had to ask my friends to give up their spots on my server. Everyone was really great about this thanking me for hosting for this long and such. I was worried people would complain and I’d have to be more forceful, but instead things were wonderful.

The next step I want to take after deploying my personal cloud, will be to start one by one replacing pieces with my own custom code. The obvious first one will be the SMTP server since I’ve already started implementing one in rust. After that it may be something like my blog, or redis or a number of other parts of the cloud. The eventual goal being that I’ve implemented a fair portion of all cloud services and I can better understand them. I wont be restricting myself to any one language. I will be pushing for a container per process with linking between containers to share services.

Overall, I hope to learn a bunch and have some fun in the process. I recently picked up the domain http://ownstack.club and hope to have something up on it in the near future!

Beeminding ZenIRCBot 3.0

ZenIRCBot is a topic I’ve written on a few times. Once upon a time it was my primary project outside of work. These days it has mostly become an unmaintained heap of code. I’ve grown significantly as a developer since I wrote it. It’s time for a revival and a rewrite.

I have a project I started about 7-8 months ago called clean-zenircbot which is a reimplementation of the bot from scratch using a custom IRC library I hope to spin out as a separate project. The goals of the project are things like being able to test the bot itself as well as making it possible for service developers to reasonably test their services. As well as documenting the whole thing to make myself no longer ashamed when I suggest someone write a service for an instance of the bot.

Going along with having written about ZenIRCBot in the past, I’ve also promised 3.0 a few times. So what makes this time different? The primary change is that I’ve started using beeminder (click to see how I’m doing), a habit tracking app with some nice features. My goal will be to fix at least 2 issues a week, or more which grants me a bit of a buffer. This will keep me pushing forward on getting a new version out the door.

I’m not sure how many issues or how long it will take, but constant progress will be made. I currently have two issues open on the repo. First one is to assess the status of the code base. Second is to go through every issue on all of the ZenIRCBot repos and pull in all of them that make sense for the new bot. This includes going through closed issues to remind myself why the old bot had some interesting design decisions.

Below is a graph of this so far. I’m starting with a flat line for the first week to give myself time to build up a buffer and work out a way to fit it into my schedule. Hopefully if you are viewing this in February or March (or even later!) the data will be going up and to the right much like the yellow road I should be staying on.

Time To Reinvent More Wheels

At CascadiaJS my friend Nick Niemeir gave a talk about how he ended up reinventing some wheels for a project a work. He went further to say that everyone should feel encouraged to go forth and reinvent. It is more than just learning. Sometimes you build something better, whether that is better for you or better for the more general case.

I’ve recently started picking up Rust. It is an interesting programming language with concurrency as first a first class citizen. It has borrowed from several languages to make that happen and it is quite enjoyable. If something I’m building is just for myself, I will likely write it in rust.

So, lets combine the first and second paragraphs. I’m finding that there is a fair amount of technology that is interesting to me, that I have never written one of. Last weekend I started in on an SMTP server in rust. I already have plans for an AMQP server and as well as a Pub/Sub server. The intent isn’t to come up with something that is better than existing tools. But more understand the problems involved and work through them.

I start out with grand plans, then I don’t always follow through. With that in mind, I’m going to set a goal to reinvent at least 6 services in the next year. All using rust as their primary language so I can feel it out in various environments. SMTP, AMQP, and Pub/Sub are definite. Other ideas I have, but aren’t solid yet, are an IRC server, monitoring server, DNS server, or maybe a key/value store of some sort.

I’m not the only one venturing into this territory, most inspiring to me is the #infoforcefeed and #stackvm crews on freenode. Between them there is are a lot of folks who’ve already reinventing all sorts of wheels together. I look forward to being more active in my participation in these communities.